Was buying this box set a bad idea? I think anyone who just spent $200 on a set of six Grateful Dead concerts from 1990 would ask the same thing as they open up the package. I’m typically all about the music with such decisions, but as it turns out, the small book, assorted paraphernalia, and general packaging of the Spring 1990 box did make me feel better about the cost and add to the value.
Pleasant surprise, but the payoff still hinges on the sounds, and the first show can’t help but be a harbinger for the box as a whole.
So how would 3/16/90 Landover leave me feeling about the remaining five shows?
The playing is consistently nimble, and the amount of time where everyone sounds engaged and fully present is on par with the best of years. The percussion firm of Kreutzmann & Hart is exceptionally in sync. Related, one key to the first set’s success is tempo. Songs like “Peggy-O” and “Loser” have enough pace here to avoid the sluggishness that could occasionally creep in. (“Loser” also benefits from being a song where Brent shines both instrumentally and vocally, between an ominous tone and those weathered high harmonies.)
“Touch Of Grey” sets the true tone afterwards, featuring Brent’s great dirty Hammond right from the start and hinting at good things to come.
Only “Black-Throated Wind” sounds more like an assembly of moving pieces trying to gel, but it is not shoddy, and seeing as how this performance is a 16-year breakout, we’ll cut it some slack. The audience obviously did.
All that considered, the “Let The Good Times Roll” opener is a little misleading with its laid-back groove. “Touch Of Grey” sets the true tone afterwards, featuring Brent’s great dirty Hammond right from the start and hinting at good things to come with the way the song builds energy on through the coda.
I should also mention I really dislike “New Minglewood Blues”, but everything this show has going for it somehow lifts this one into the listenable realm for me. Did not see that coming.
You might notice the mix again as “Scarlet Begonias” kicks off the second set — Bob’s and Brent’s instruments more noticeable, and worth the attention in this case. Hear Mydland fill in the soundscape between the bridge and third verse, and you know what Garcia had in mind when they looked for something with a little more sustain coming from the keys bench back in ’79.
Phil joins Brent in providing a lot of infrastructure for Jerry to work from in his solo. The coolest part of the performance is when you expect the post-solo verse, but instead Jerry shifts to some chunkier chords and invites some back-and-forth with Brent for a few more bars.
There’s really no great way to shift from the “Scarlet” jam into 7/4, so they deserve points for daring it at all, much less doing a decent sort of stop-and-turn into “Estimated Prophet”.
The subsequent “Ship Of Fools” is another track helped by qualifying as a slower shuffle instead of a crawl. Garcia’s vocal is committed, and for a random observation, the first few notes of his solo sound a lot like BB King.
The ensemble work remains high through “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”. They stick the landing but then appear to be having so much fun that they start up again into a five-minute “Jam” combining that song with an island feel — Mickey on something steel-drum-esque and Brent with a happy, cakewalk-into-town vibe.
The atmosphere is light enough that there’s actually a brief but serious feint toward “Eyes Of The World”, but that would’ve made a truly ridiculous pre-Drums sequence, and they leave the stage to the stickmen.
Bassooner Or Later …
“Space” finds Weir conjuring up cloudshapes and Jerry’s runs propel the crowd through them. After a while, the clouds settle in over a familiar bus. This “Other One” isn’t a monster but it has plenty of rumble, with the drums staying tight and low and Garcia working the bassoon midi patch to good effect.
Likewise, “Stella Blue” is solid and with its own unexpected treats. Listen to how Phil tiptoes up to the end of Garcia’s solo.
A peppy “Sugar Magnolia” suffers from the night’s only trainwreck as they approach the turn into “Sunshine Daydream”, but by that point nobody cares. “The Last Time” isn’t a selling point for me as an encore. It’s fun enough, it’s fine.
Phil At The Wheel
I didn’t talk about Phil much here, but he’s this show’s secret weapon. Not with super-aggressive riffs or bombs, but through his constant coloring between vocals and the general level of activity in his playing. He rarely if ever grabbed the spotlight, but the way he provided so much precise underpinning wound up subtly driving the whole evening.
Basically, if you’ve listened to a moderate amount of Dead from even their final 15 years, you know the various pitfalls that can temporarily hit a show. Even a golden year like ’77 wasn’t totally immune. Well, this show skates around just about all of them. Hoping the rest of the box is on this level.
3/16/90 @ Capital Centre
Set 1 – let the good times roll / touch of grey / new minglewood blues / peggy-o / queen jane approximately / loser / black-throated wind / bird song / blow away
Set 2 – scarlet begonias > estimated prophet > ship of fools > man smart woman smarter > jam > drums > space > the other one > stella blue > sugar magnolia // the last time